Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Nigerian author dies at the age of 82.

The Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe has died at the age of 82. His last book, There Was a Country, an examination of the bloody recent history of his homeland, was reviewed for the New Statesman by Chika Unigwe. Here is her review.

There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra

Chinua Achebe
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.

Divided into four parts and interspersed with poetry, the book provides an expansive, historical sketch of Nigeria from the colonial period to the present. It also pays homage to one of Achebe’s idols and one of Africa’s most respected leaders, Nelson Mandela.

It begins with an Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” This is exactly what the book sets out to do – to discover where the rain that is still falling on Africa originated. Achebe, who is always clear-eyed about the source of the continent’s woes, writes:

The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin conference of 1885 . . . It took place without African consultation or representation . . . Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages.

That piece of chocolate cake, made up of so many disparate parts, began to crumble soon after Nigerian independence in 1960. James Robertson, the governor general appointed by Britain ostensibly to oversee the transition, was given the task of manipulating the elections to ensure that Britain’s choice for prime minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, got into power. “The British made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country that had played no real part in the struggle for independence,” Achebe writes.

Nigeria soon became a cesspool of corruption and misrule and was wracked by one crisis after another: the controversial census of 1963- 64, which was accompanied by accusations that the government of the northern region had inflated numbers to give it an advantage in the House of Representatives; the federal election crisis of 1964; and the western Nigeria election crisis of 1965.

In January 1966, there was a coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, “Igbo only in name”, who “was widely known as someone who saw himself as a northerner”. Unfortunately for Nzeogwu and the rest of his group (which included one Yoruba officer), the casualties of the coup were mostly politicians of northern origin, including Balewa, by then prime minister, and Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. This led to a perception that the coup was an Igbo plot to take over the reins of power. A counter-coup in the summer crush - ed Nzeogwu’s putsch and prepared the ground for dire repercussions against the Igbo. In the north, mobs attacked Igbo civilians. Things deteriorated quickly. General Ironsi, who after the first coup had inherited a nation in a shambles, was assassinated as Igbo officers were targeted.
The massacre of easterners had begun.

Achebe argues that “a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government . . . Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. Calls in the east for independence grew louder . . . There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other peoples from eastern Nigeria. Nigeria did not belong to us.”

In the midst of this crisis, on 24 May 1967, Achebe’s son, Chidi, was born. Six days later, citing the federal government’s inability to halt the genocide against easterners, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the eastern region, declared Biafra an independent state. In July of that year, a fullscale war broke out.

It has been 42 years since the Nigerian-Biafran war ended, yet ethnic and religious tensions remain high in Nigeria. Achebe writes: “Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government turned a blind eye to . . . savage massacres of its citizens . . .” To put an end to this requires, as Achebe acknowledges, a transformation of the political system and an end to “the cult of mediocrity” that currently runs (and ruins) Nigeria – one hopes through a peaceful, democratic process. And with the Boko Haram terrorist group growing increasingly active and violent, this had better happen sooner rather than later.

Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer. Her latest novel is “Night Dancer” (Jonathan Cape, £12.99).


The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Photo: Getty Images)
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times